Tuesday, December 15, 2009

advent 3.3

(from LWCC, 13 December 2009, part ii: continued from here)

In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of the priestly line. Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commandments blamelessly. But they had no children and they were both well along in years.

Oh, how they longed for a child. In those days, a child was considered a special blessing, and not having a child was considered a reproach. Elizabeth and Zechariah were righteous—their childlessness was not a punishment—but their neighbors didn't know that, and so it was especially hard for Elizabeth, because women were always blamed for such things.

And oh, how Elizabeth especially longed for a child, for one of the few deeply powerful and creative things a poor woman living in the hill country could do, in those days, was to bring forth new life from her own body, to nourish a soul in her womb, to nurse a baby at her breast, to love and look after a new member of Yahweh's special people, a new generation to carry on hope in the ancient promises.

Elizabeth and Zechariah waited and waited for a child, until they were quite old. Perhaps they had given up hoping at that point; or perhaps the tiniest scrap of hope remained in their hearts. They went about their daily lives, sweeping floors, doing work, visiting neighbors, sharing meal.
Every year Zechariah went to Jerusalem to join with other men from his family in their priestly duties; and every year they would draw straws to see who would go into the temple and burn the daily incense. This year, Zechariah drew the straw, and so it was his turn, perhaps the only turn of his life. And so perhaps he shook a little bit in his robes. At the appointed time, he went into the temple, into the special place, with the bowl of incense, and he probably prayed these words: “May the God of mercy come into the sanctuary and accept with pleasure the sacrifice of God's people,” and then nestled the bowl of incense in the coals, and the sweet aroma filled the space and rose to heaven.

Zechariah must have expected to leave, then, trailing the scent of incense, and go out to the waiting people he had just represented. But as we saw earlier, suddenly Gabriel appeared to him, and seeing the man's terror, called him by name. “Zechariah,” the angel said, “do not be afraid! Your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Zechariah was an ordinary man, living in an ordinary, if difficult time. He was doing his priestly duty, living his faithful life, but in those days personal messengers from Yahweh were few and far between. It is no wonder Zechariah responded to this message with questions: “How can I know for sure that this is true? My wife and I are too old to have children now.” It had been a long time since people had spoken with Yahweh the way Abram did, and so while we credit father Abraham for his belief in the promise, can we really blame Zechariah for his astonishment? How ready are we for God to swoop in with a good word?

So Gabriel gave Zechariah the sign he requested, and silenced him until the good news the angel brought had come true. He returned home, and Elizabeth did become pregnant, and it was left to her to speak the praise: “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.”

Do you see the beauty here? This is not just the beauty of a woman whose God has finally granted her heart's deep desire to conceive a child. This is not just the beauty of God's concern for private longings. This is not just the beauty of stretch marks on thin, wrinkled skin, or the first flutter of feeling within, or even the surprise and renewed faith in God's miraculous power—for is anything impossible with Yahweh?

This is also the beauty of Yahweh, loving with an everlasting love, reaching into history yet again after years and years of waiting in a world nearly consumed by darkness and death, and setting in motion the fulfillment of the promise for the chosen people and for entire world waiting to be blessed by them. The angel's words to Zechariah are a quotation of Malachi, a confirmation of the coming of a messenger who will prepare the way of the Lord, who will preach the good news of the coming of the messiah, who will usher in the changing of everything, who will finally set things right with relationship, peace, harmony, and justice.

(to be continued)

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